"Watching it on TV, you got the sense that nothing was impossible," remembers Dunsire, "That ultimately things can change. There's never a need to accept something as a given."
Don't accept the given. It's an idea that resonates throughout Dunsire's life as well as her career. Born of parents lacking even high school education, Dunsire has used her own learning to traverse the world. She took an insignificant oncology unit at Novartis and built it into one of the company's crown jewels, along the way rewriting the story of cancer care for patients by leading the introduction of such important drugs as Gleevec. As CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, her vision has been a game changer for the company, turning an underperforming biotech into a robust center of oncology excellence by way of a nearly $9 billion acquisition by Takeda.Dunsire is one of the few female biotech CEOs (and almost certainly the only one who speaks fluent Afrikaans). Part of her success, say those who know her, is that she has always been governed by who she is—a physician who got her start treating the poor in Johannesburg, a mother and wife, and a deeply religious woman as well as a business leader.
"Deborah is warm and caring as well as strong and decisive," says Linda Heath, her executive assistant. "When she speaks, we clearly see that her head is that of a leader and her heart is that of a healer."
Her achievements have earned Dunsire the Healthcare Businesswoman's Association 2009 Woman of the Year Award, a prestigious recognition that has been bestowed on executives such as Charlotte Sibley, Meryl Zausner, and Susan Desmond-Hellman. This year's designation is made even more special given that the WOTY Award—which has helped recognize and advance women's leadership in the industry—is celebrating its 20th anniversary, while Dunsire also celebrates 20 years of career achievement.
Deborah Dunsire started her career by following a simple lesson that has only become more true as the years have passed: "You can't be too sure of the path you're on because you might shut down some side roads that are incredibly important."